Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Commentary on A Single Man

I've been reading David Bergman's The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture, and while I don't necessarily recommend the book as a whole (unless one is extremely interested in the Violet Quill writers, and occasionally aggravatingly academic discussions of the writers' work), there's an intriguing section (pp. 60-67) about Isherwood and A Single Man in the chapter entitled "Gay Writing Before the Violet Quill."

***Spoilers ahead, in case you have not read A Single Man (which you absolutely should!)***

The reason I particularly recommend this discussion is that it takes an interesting, and I think very intelligent, angle on the question of the final scene, which I recall we discussed at great length. Bergman does not think that George dies at the end of the book, but rather that Isherwood is using the playful "let's suppose" of the final two or three pages to both supply and subvert the traditional "the gay man must die" ending of so many prior mainstream gay novels. He also connects the final scene back to the "rock pool" description from several pages earlier, in a way that I wanted to do myself while I was reading but was unable to see my way clear to.

This particular discussion is well worth a look.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Persistent Voices Persisting (We Hope)

You wouldn't know it from the link in the posting below, but Philip's reading from Persistent Voices at the DC Center tomorrow evening (Dec. 10) has been postponed. I'll put up the new date when I learn of it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Aristophanes’ speech on YouTube

These two YouTube videos may be of interest:

Aristophanes’ Speech from Symposium


Hedwig and the Angry Inch - Origin of Love


Friday, December 4, 2009

non ridere etc

Just came across this Guardian interview with Alan Hollinghurst shortly after he won the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty. Considering how moralistic a response Hollinghurst's works, in particular this novel, sometimes elicit, I thought this quote especially worthwhile:

Nick's millionaire Lebanese-born lover, Wani, is hooked on extreme porn and takes bucketloads of cocaine. One reviewer called Wani depraved, an odd remark to make about Hollinghurst's morally neutral fiction. "I don't make moral judgments," he says. "I prefer to let things reverberate with their own ironies and implications. That was one of the interests of writing this book from the inside and not just writing something that broadly satirised or bashed up the 80s. To tell it from the point of view of someone who was very seduced by it." Nick is as morally compromised as the rest. Or not, depending on your point of view.

Judgments are easy. Every person has them. Insights are rarer.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Persistent Voices

Our own Philip Clark reads from his new anthology Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS, on Thursday December 10th from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM at the DC Center (we used to meet there: Suite 350, 1111 14th St NW, just below Thomas Circle).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Stephanus and Plato

I'll let the link explain Stephanus numbers. They're little numbers you find running down the page in Plato (or less helpfully at the top or bottom of each page). They're useful for locating passages among different editions. If you buy or use an edition other than the "Penguin Classics" Christopher Gill translation, be sure the translation you use has these Stephanus numbers. It will be very hard to keep everyone on the same page, so to speak, without them. In particular, be aware that Penguin has a "Great Ideas" edition of the Symposium, also using the Gill translation, but without the Stephanus numbers! I encourage people to bring or even use other translations than the Gill (the old Victorian Jowett, for example, has the most beautiful phrase and clause in the English language) but don't be without Stephanus.

Friday, November 6, 2009

linguistic resources

Sorry not to have put this up before, well before, the discussion, but true fans of The First Verse will continue to piece the puzzle, and these links will prove useful to them.
First, for Gaelic expressions, the Hibernian Archive;
for Dublin slang, the O'Byrne Files;
and surprisingly useful, when all else fails, is Urban Dictionary.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

abracadabra …

appears eight times in The First Verse, the first four times associated uniformly with Chris Mooney, Niall's sometime boyfriend: Abracadabra, me granny comes from Cabra. The fifth also is Chris but Niall at first thinks it might be Pablo (nothing too significant in that—Niall is perpetually perceiving Pablo). The sixth is brought on by Niall thinking of his grandmother. The seventh, more worryingly, is what Niall thinks just before he turns on the light to return to Pour Mieux Vivre by delving into Patrick's books (preceded by a flickering sixth appearance of a congratulatory Pablo Virgomare). And then finally the eighth on the last page of the book when the old woman (someone's granny) answers Niall's question "When is the next 46A due?" with
"Abracadabra," she said, pointing to its green shape coming out of town towards us.
"Abracadabra" is commonly used nowadays just as a "poof—there it is!" and so I think it is here. Alternatively, we're supposed to think that the sleek Virgomare is disporting himself now in granny drag!?

It is odd, I'll admit, that the novel ends so emphatically on the word "south"—when just a page before our PMVs were so determined to "Follow the allroads [a startling word itself] away southbound to the next level." but perhaps the irony here is that Niall's next level will be one free of Pour Mieux Vivre (as opposed to the 46A transporting Niall across the Bay of Biscay to the Escorial, some thousand miles west of Rome).

Lastly on the difficulties of the last page(s), Niall begins "to discern the first strain of something old and sad, the last strains of something new." The former must be the Miserere of the PMV. We don't know what the new strains are but it is worrisome that they are the last of them. Or rather it would be worrisome, this last temptation of Niall Lenihan in the Anal Hell Inn, were the bus not to ensconce and remove him to Mum & Da in Sandycove.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Glossary for The First Verse

Here are definitions of some of the terms in Barry McCrea’s The First Verse.

anorak: a hooded jacket like those worn by those in polar regions.

bodhrán: an Irish frame drum.

braying: yelling, shrieking.

cess: bad cess to, may evil befall.

coeval: of the same age.

conkers: a game played orig. with snail-shells, now with horse chestnuts on strings, in which each player tries to break with his or her own that held by the opponent.

craic: fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation (Irish). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craic.

Dolmio sauce: a brand of tomato sauces marketed to kids in the UK.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.
Asperges me, hyssopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.
Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.

(From Psalm 51)

But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.

eejit: idiot.

flan: an open pastry or sponge case containing a filling.

foolscap: a former size of paper for printing, 13½ x 17 inches. Also, a former size of writing paper, 13 x 8 inches.

frogmarch: the practice of forcibly transporting suspects or prisoners through a public place, up to and including carrying them such that their limbs splay in a frog-like manner.

gom: a fool; a stupid lout.

knacker: Irish term of affection for low-life scum.

limpet: any of various mollusks that sticks tightly to rocks.

locked: drunk (Irish).

louche: not straightforward. Now usu., dubious, shifty, disreputable.

“oranges and lemons: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oranges_and_Lemons.

piss-up: a session of heavy drinking.

“plurality of bottles: from Flann O'Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds: “Notwithstanding this eulogy, I soon found that the mass of plain porter bears an unsatisfactory relation to its toxic content and I became subsequently addicted to brown stout in bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.”

snog: engage in kissing and cuddling with.

stór: darling (Irish).

swot: a person who studies hard.

uilleann pipes: Irish bagpipes.

yonks: a long time; ages.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I got a copy of "Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison" through Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia. The cost was $14.95 plus $5.00 shipping. I usually wait till I am ordering more than one book because the shipping cost remains the same. Delivery is usually in a day or two. I like the idea of supporting independent gay book stores and my experience w/ Giovanni's Room has always been very positive. They are pleasant and knowledgeable.

Their website is www.giovannisroom.com


Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Shurin Glossary

Mighty Bookmen,

Here is a glossary I compiled (for people like me with limited vocabulary) for Aaron Shurin's King of Shadows. It's in alphabetical order. Cheers, Ross

109   abattoir   a slaughterhouse

152   cathexis   the concentration or accumulation of libidinal energy on a particular object

135   contraindications   a contrary indication; esp. a symptom, circumstance, etc., which tends to make a particular course of (remedial) action inadvisable

135   dais   a raised table at which distinguished persons sit

135   la diritta via   the straight road

127   divagations   straying from one place or subject to another

132, 155   e lucevan le stella   "and the stars were shining," from the third act of Puccini's "Tosca"

79   ganglia   cystic swellings of unknown cause arising from the sheaths of tendons.

119   incarnadine   flesh-colored

134   ineluctably   unavoidably

148   inviolable   to be kept sacred or free from attack; not to be infringed or dishonored

119   munificent   splendidly generous

43   puer Aeternus   eternal child, used in mythology to designate a child-god who is forever young; psychologically it refers to an older man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level

73   samovar   a Russian tea urn, with an internal heating device to keep the water at boiling point

62   sentience   consciousness, susceptibility to sensation

115   sybarite   a person who is self-indulgent or devoted to sensuous luxury or pleasure; a sensualist

74   threnody   a song of lamentation, esp. for the dead; a dirge

133   topos   a traditional theme in a literary composition

136   vestigial   remaining or surviving as a trace or remnant

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Of Mice and Bookmen

Greetings, Colleagues--

Nine Bookmen (including two first-timers) attended the Aug. 5 discussion of Armistead Maupin's novel, "Michael Tolliver Lives." Here are some observations about the novel that I believe reflect our consensus, though not necessarily unanimity.

Nearly all those present have read at least some of the six-volume "Tales of the City" series. Some had also heard Maupin read them on audiobooks and/or seen the three TV adaptations (the first ran on PBS, the second and third on Showtime).

With that in mind, the group agreed that one of the pleasures of reading this latest book was finding out what had happened to the main characters from Barbary Lane and environs. However, we did not get into the question of whether MTL is functionally a seventh volume in the series or stands on its own (which I take as meaning most of us assumed it is the former).

We agreed that the novel is significantly less political than its predecessors, with little social commentary. In fact, one member commented that the references to Bush, Iraq, etc., seemed "dropped in" rather than organic to the story (such as it was). Overall, however, I didn't sense that change was a problem for most of the group.

The switch from the "Tales" series' third-person omniscient narrator to first-person removes any lingering doubt that Maupin is Michael Tolliver, but did not jar most of the group (though I must say it did bother me, at least to some extent).

I also expressed my disappointment (speaking as a Louisiana boy) that the chapters where Michael goes home to see his mother verged so close on Southern Gothic. However, that was distinctly a minority view.

Overall, the group enjoyed reading (or rereading in some cases) "Michael Tolliver Lives." As one member said (I'm paraphrasing here): "Great literature it ain't, but it is a good summer read." Cheers, Steve

Michael Tolliver Lives in a Fairy Tale

Some writers create fictional worlds that are seemingly “better” than the “real” ones. The motivations for doing so may vary. Some may wish to replace unpleasant memories of real events with happier memories of fictional events. Others may wish to emphasize harmonious elements to divert attention from the discordant. Regardless of Armistead Maupin’s motives, he has created a likable enough tale of a 55-year-old gay man’s life in 2006 San Francisco. There is place for breezy stories where the conflicts presented may only remotely resemble the conflicts of our real lives. These stories take us away from our daily troubles and throw us in fairy tale land where love is found, held on to, and flawless.

Maupin applies several techniques to draw us into this world. By assembling details common to many middle-aged gay city-dwelling men, such readers can say, “yes, I’ve had that experience.” The author is “one of us” and we open our ears to him. The references to gay culture create the necessary foundation upon which stand idealized versions of lovers and friends, either steadfast or returning. The camaraderie of logical family members taking care of one another adds comfort. A revealed secret about a father’s last sordid act is intended to add drama. A young woman’s sex blog is intended to add spice. Michael Tolliver’s choice to be with the sage Anna Madrigal rather than his mother at their times of need adds humor with the revelation “there is no fifth destination,” and poignancy with his mother holding the photo of Michael and his husband.

The entire package was not a completely satisfying reading experience for me. I would have preferred a grittier plot or more artful writing. The book is redeemed by its humor and its depiction of a small supportive community in a city with people like us.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

No Fifth Destination

You can't go home again! Writing in the first person, Maupin misses the opportunity to create a distinctive voice while losing the consistent discipline of a third-person viewpoint. When not writing about himself and "Ben", the tales are an okay follow-up to the earlier series; otherwise, the writing becomes so treacly that one despairs of escape (Ben, the perfect husband, in the perfect marriage, only ever so slightly marred by the narrator's chubby anxiety about not being worthy of so much wonderfulness and gratitude that it's his).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mini-review of Bill from My Father

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes, they forgive them.”-- Oscar Wilde

Many memoirs have been published about fathers by their adult children. The ones that are worthwhile are those that reveal to the reader something significant about human nature as personified by the father, the child, or both. I didn’t find Cooper’s memoir one of these. I’m sure that hundreds of thousands of American men born in the 20th century have stories about their fathers as awful or worse than Cooper’s. It seems that Cooper wrote about his because he happens to be a professional writer.

I knew I wasn’t going to be enthralled by the book shortly after I began reading it. As portrayed, the father is a monster of pugnacity, vindictiveness, and heartlessness. No matter what he experienced in his past, his qualities are not those of a good husband, father, or friend. In his dotage the father is only exaggerating the misanthropy that has characterized his entire life.

Cooper is a schlemiel (a habitual bungler). I was surprised to learn he was 48 when his father died since his behavior, thinking, and speaking were so immature, irresponsible, and lacking in character throughout the memoir. Maybe his guilt for not loving his father enough induced him to avoid confrontation, attempt to placate unreasonable demands, and repeatedly return to the source of his torment in hope of better treatment, much like Charlie Brown’s constantly trying to kick the football held by Lucy.

As with the comic strip “Peanuts,” I found the antics of the impossible father and weakling son mildly amusing. In a more serious vein, the story of two seriously defective men acting out their domestic drama was pathetic. Toward the end of the book, the memoir had become sickening as exemplified by the following bits:

Cooper’s prevaricating and procrastinating to his father about the father’s stay in the hospital instead of gently telling him the truth
the father’s “bill” to Cooper for his upbringing and the father’s lawsuits against his daughters-in-law
Cooper’s vacillating thoughts about his father’s making good on his threat to sue over the “bill”: “he was my father, after all, the man who bore my ‘fiscal burden,’ and every son owes his father something.” p. 177
Cooper’s tepid reaction to his father’s numerous lawsuits against his sisters-in-law: “every time he mentioned the lawsuits, I felt sorry for my sisters-in-law, and my fondness for him was compromised.” p. 202
Cooper’s scruples about taking (“stealing”) the video about Hell from his dying father because he may “have denied him [his father] the opportunity to see the video for himself and make his own decision.” p. 194
Cooper’s reflecting on a photograph of his elderly father in Bermuda shorts and knee socks, observing that “he rivaled the gazers of the ancient world: Ulysses leaning from the prow of his ship; Penelope scanning the sea at dusk.” p. 199 (This about a man who has excised his new wife from the honeymoon photo and displays the defaced picture possibly as a warning to his latest love interest.)

I found two parts of the book touching: Cooper’s description of his brothers and the trip to the cemetery to “unveil” his father’s headstone. On finishing Cooper’s memoir maybe I had learned something about human nature after all. I had learned just how horrible a sado-masochistic father-son relationship can be.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Author, Author

Greetings, Colleagues--

We had the unexpected pleasure of a visit by Frank Muzzy, author of "Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Washington, D.C.," during our discussion of his book last night (6/17). We were a smaller group than usual (four) but that enabled us to have a relaxed, intimate discussion of the book. Frank detailed the origins of the project, explained his methodology, and cited a number of events/themes he wishes he'd had room to include (an updated version does not appear to be in the cards). He also gave us some inside scoop on his professional and personal relationships with several of the key contemporary figures depicted in the book, and answered various questions.

He also responded to a critique of the work that is posted on the Rainbow History Project Web site (thanks to Philip for alerting us to that), which you can check out by clicking on errata.

I believe copies of the book are still available at Lambda Rising if this posting piques anyone's curiosity.

Steve Honley
Bookmen DC

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Aciman and Obama

I was glad Ken brought Aciman's piece to our attention, even though it had nothing to do with Aciman's book that we read but rather with his much praised memoir of growing up in Egypt. Out of Egypt is to my way of thinking something of a slight of hand -- a relict of the rich multicultural society that existed in Alexandria for no more than fifty years, ken to the world that Cavafy occupied and loved. But it is not a memoir of Egyptians, because, as in Cavafy's writings, the Egyptians hardly exist -- except as housekeepers, drivers, gardeners, workers.

As he makes clear in his memoir, the Acimans were eccentric and amusing interlopers from outside, folk that had arrived sometime in the nineteenth century to make a fortune and then mesh with the West. They did well and took Italian nationality to improve their social standing. Almost all the Levantines did this. It brought solidarity with the other Europeans living off the fat of the land and brought them privileges and wealth that was not available to most Egyptians. Since he wrote that book, there have been four or five memoirs by Jews who grew up in Egypt, each vying for the best remembered nostalgia of days gone past. Apparently for them, nostalgia for Egypt is exquisite and memorable.

Therefore it is ironic that Aciman berates Obama for failing to mention in his Cairo speech the "second exodus" of the Jews -- prompted when the state of Israel was founded. Obama, he said, should have equated them with the thousands of Palestinians who also lost everything they owned, who were looted, to use Aciman's word for Egyptian Jews, by the incoming Jews. On the other hand, others criticized Obama for daring to equate the Palestinians with the Jews of the Holocaust which, we all know, is anathema.

I was bewildered and saddened by Aciman's column.

It is sad--to say the least--that people treat each other this way. Actions have consequences, and for the Acimans of the Middle East the decision to carve out of state in the middle of the Arab World meant that their own place in Arab countries was imperiled. Why should there not be a reaction? The West has owned up to the Holocaust. When is Israel going to own up to the Nakba and make restitution? By writing this article, does Aciman actually expect us not to hold Israel accountable? Or is there some other reason for him to go way out on a limb?


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Andre Aciman speaks...

Greetings, Colleagues--

Ken J. was kind enough to flag an op-ed that appeared in the June 8 New York Times by Andre Aciman, whose novel Call Me by Your Name we read last September. Although the piece, titled "The Exodus Obama Forgot to Mention," has no gay content (and his byline does not even reference the novel), it is nonetheless interesting. So I encourage you to check it out. Here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/09/opinion/09aciman.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=Egypt&st=cse

Cheers, Steve

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"in the fragrance of syringa"

Some interest was expressed in E.F. Benson's story "The Man Who Went Too Far" (which you can obtain or read in PDF by clicking on the link). My recommendation would be not to unless you're interested enough in H.P. Lovecraft to check out this story he is supposed to have praised. There is, however, this lovely sentence:

Frank and he saw each other across the bushes and garden-beds, and each quickening his step, they met suddenly face to face round an angle of the garden walk, in the fragrance of syringa.

But by way of disqualification it perhaps should be admitted that I attempted to watch the first episode of the 1985 TV series, "Mapp & Lucia" (our heroine's name oddly pronounced trochaically) and found Geraldine McEwan, an actress I've generally admired, so irritating as LUcha that I had to stop the instant she and Nigel Hawthorne (Georgino) started babby talking.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Mapp & Lucia Glossary

Scholars, or the merely curious, will find this link useful


... though some passages' confusion seems to transcend idiom or reference (e.g. Georgie's hypnagogic musing "Sometime he would have bells put on all the shutters as he determined to do a month ago, and then no sort of noise would disturb him any more…." whilst being unwittingly burglarized in Chapter 8).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Summer at Sumner (well, mostly...:-)

Greetings, Colleagues--

I am delighted to report that the Sumner School will be able to host our June and July meetings, minimizing the number of times we have to meet at alternative venues during the summer. However, our Aug. 5, Aug. 19 and Sept. 2 meetings will take place at my office building, 2101 E St. NW (the American Foreign Service Association), where we had our 10th-anniversary gala earlier this month. But don't worry: I'll be sure to remind you of which place to go well in advance.

In the meantime, hope to see many of you tonight to discuss the first five stories in the Berman collection. Cheers, Steve

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Tenth Anniversary

Many thanks to Steve for hosting a terrific anniversary party (not to mention continued gratitude for his excellent facilitating and his having led us out of the Slough of Capitol Hill). I think our group is very special—unique, one might add, with suitable qualifiers: we are open and public, anyone can attend, unannounced, unscreened, and on occasions of their choosing. In 2019 I expect we'll be celebrating again!

Thursday, May 7, 2009


An extra-curricular meeting of BookmenDC last week discussed Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison’s book Beloved that is now part of the new canon of American writing and assigned reading in many school core curricula – perhaps as the prime example of writing about the experience of slavery by a prominent African American author. The story is loosely based on a true story of the enslaved African American Margaret Garner who, in 1856 after having escaped from slavery, killed her children in order to save them from being returned to servitude under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act. It is complexly told in a style that is Morrison’s trade-mark and to my way of thinking brilliantly serves this particular book.

If I may briefly sketch the plot, Sethe (fem. of Seth, pronounced Seth-uh), the protagonist, escapes from slavery in Kentucky to join her mother-in-law (known as Baby Suggs) and three children in a free house in southern Ohio on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Under extreme circumstances, she gives birth to a daughter named Denver during the escape across the Ohio River, who survives, and for a month Sethe, surrounded by her family, enjoys the taste of freedom in the home of Baby Suggs, a place known as “124.” Then her master (Schoolteacher) comes to reclaim them, and in a spasm of fear, dread, and madness, Sethe tries to murder her children to prevent this happening. She succeeds in killing one – known only as Beloved – and the others are saved or manage to get away before they are killed. Sethe is temporarily jailed but released after sympathetic abolitionists embrace her cause.

These are the horrifying events that anchor Sethe’s story, though they take place 18 years before the book actually opens. Beloved begins with Sethe sunk into a sort of paralysis, isolated, alone, neither living nor dead, her mind rattled by suppressed memories of the events surrounding Beloved’s death and of her former life as a slave, when Paul D, one of the former slaves of the ironically named Sweet Home, the Kentucky slave house, finds her and attempts to make a life with her. (Sethe’s husband Halle from the same farm never appears in the intervening time, and we eventually learn his fate.)

The story then merges into a ghost story – a traditional African-American folklore genre – as Beloved makes a return in the flesh to Sethe’s home (or so it seems), and opens up afresh the painful memories of the past. The sickening details of slave life, of abuses, killings, dismemberments and disfigurations, but also the instability and self-disrespect and perversion of home life are described in stark and lyrical, sometimes poetical language, largely in fragmented form. By capturing Sethe’s undivided love, Beloved drives Paul D out of the house. Denver realizes what is happening, and attempts to help her by joining the world outside of “124.” The “denouement” occurs when the neighbors try to intervene to prevent Sethe from hurting herself and to reclaim her for the community, but instead they startle Sethe who objects to them appearing in her “yard,” and provokes her to a renewed outburst of fright and grief. She is not successful this time, and Beloved disappears into the woods. Did she exist in real flesh? Will Sethe be able to restart her life, perhaps with Paul D? are questions that readers faces at the end of the book.

What captured our reading of the book was Morrison’s style and language, her use of unusual turns of phrase and vocabulary, the jolting and fragmented narrative style that slips back and forth between past and present, and the portrait of slavery and what it meant for individuals. As an editor for many years, language is highly important to her –see her Nobel prize speech, for example (thanks to Ross for this reference) – and in this novel it takes on particular luster. Margaret Atwood in a terrific review of the book in the New York Times described it thus: “'Beloved'' is written in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.” One is struck by her similes (I jotted down: old as sky, cold as charity, eating berries so good it like being in church), by her telling phrases for certain situations (sitting or smeared in butter, for madness; tobacco tin for Paul D’s heart), and the use of the word “rememory” (for remember), which suggests the conscious and deliberate use of memory to dredge up from the past those memories too painful to remember. But throughout this work we confront painful, hard and brutal depictions of slavery, where people are robbed of identity, respect, stability, love, where women don’t have the ability to form families (children come and go, and they are at the beck and call of service).

Her discussion of women and motherhood are key themes of the novel. Another is sense of identity, of which slaves were robbed. The reconstruction of self must begin anew upon emancipation, to individuals’ great confusion since they are unsure of who they were and what they felt during their enslavement. Names, which were allotted to them, are meaningless, and in Beloved slaves frequently change them to something else, more to their liking or sense of self.

Many of these themes appear in slavery elsewhere, and therefore are common to universal bondage. In Egypt, for instance, slaves in the nineteenth century sometimes objected to their names, which were often petty and even derogatory, and upon being sold to new owners or being emancipated, they would take new and more dignified names. The theft of identity, and how it impacts on individuals, has been discussed in a number of new works on slavery in the Middle East, perhaps with an eye to the impact of this book.

The newest work of Morrison is called A Mercy, and takes up again the themes of slavery, women, memory, and dignity. Reader Glen mentioned another book of interest, The Known World by Washington area author Edward Jones. He too explores the lives of slaves and ex-slaves and how they cope with an unsympathetic world.

Some readers (Tim, for one) founds elements of the plot “overdramatic,” and that they tend to cheapen the impact of the rest of the book. Among new historians of the slave period in our history, the ability of former slaves and ex-slaves to cultivate a sense of themselves and their worth in spite of the system is a theme being fruitfully explored.

I should also point out there were parts of Beloved that were written in a stream of consciousness style that remained mysterious to us (the chapters 20-23), and perhaps these sections were part of Morrison's "over the top" style that some readers have complained of.

Morrison is said to have wanted to establish a canon of black writing, but in this book she falls more in the traditions, on the one hand, of Faulkner and the southern school and, on the other hand, of slave narratives that project the lives of blacks without allowing much of an interior view. This interior view is what Morrison so fascinatingly explores. How does this work relate to the body of black fiction that precedes it? Perhaps not easily. Is it a great piece of fiction that happens to be written by an African American woman?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Not So Hidden History

Greetings, Colleagues--

I've been meaning to do this for a long time, but let me plug Philip Clark's blog, Hidden History. Here is the notice Philip just sent out about his current column; scroll down for the URL. Cheers, Steve
Dear Friends,

I'm a week late getting this out, but since I'm writing about books and events from the past, who cares about timeliness?

I was preparing to write another edition of Hidden History's "reading roundup" feature when I had a brainstorm: why shouldn't I be using the column to promote books by people I know and like? And thus, this week's Hidden History is born:

Hidden History: The Favoritism Reading Roundup: http://thenewgay.net/2009/03/hidden-history-the-favoritism-reading-roundup.html

These books are all well-worth buying and reading. Enjoy! If you know someone else who'd be interested in the column, please do pass along the URL. And if anyone wants to take a look at previous Hidden History columns, the blog now includes an archive: http://thenewgay.net/category/columns/hidden-history

All best wishes,


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Vote early and often on selections for our next reading list! :-)

Greetings, Colleagues--

A couple of you have already asked whether I was perhaps taking my subject line too literally in sending multiple copies of the nominations I recently sent out. The answer, of course, is no (my work computer server hiccupped), and please accept my apologies for any inconvenience.

My thanks to Tim for his thoughtful posting commenting on the list. I encourage others to follow his example. :-)

Finally, my thanks to those who have already voted. I look forward to hearing from the rest of you over the next week or two.

Cheers, Steve

Thoughts on our next novels

You read novels. Some you enjoy. Some you are impressed by. Some you recognize as deserving their high reputation. But some simply stick with you, irrespective of your enjoyment, their quality, their reputation. Something about them is so original and well ... novel that they draw you back to them, repeatedly, without your effort. One of not even a handful of books like that I've read in the last dozen years is Barry McCrea's The First Verse. We read a selection from it in the anthology Fresh Men two years ago. That selection gives a good taste of his writing and a nearly complete version of the homosexuality of his gay male narrator. What only the novel can give, however, is the obsessiveness of the cult he falls into, a cult of reading, of reading not inbetween the lines but beyond them, beyond the words even, and how obsessive our own reading of these readings becomes, an obsession akin to infatuation or any of the arts of cruising. There's no book I'd rather re-read with our group.

As for the rest, though I expect I would enjoy reading any combination of the Leavitt, Hollinghurst, or Cunningham, we've already read works by these fine writers (Specimen Days would be our fourth Cunningham). We've also already read Gore Vidal and Armistead Maupin. I loved Tales of the City in its time but wonder how long in the tooth I want to see Michael Mouse. I read Myra Breckenridge twenty-five years ago and wasn't swept away but it's an iconic work and I'd be willing to give it another shot. (I'm considerably less attracted to one of Vidal's historical novels, whoever the titular subject is.)

I read The Object of My Affection when it came out, grew tired of the wise-cracking self-deprecating narrator well before book's end and have no confidence I'd get past the first chapter on a re-read. Blurbs by Mr Kite Runner and PW warnings of the "overly sentimental" make me leery of the Greer. And though I have some interest in being exposed to the E. Lynn Harris phenomenon, I have no interest in shelling out big bucks in hard times for a deluxe hardbound edition.

That leaves me with Mack Friedman's Setting the Lawn on Fire, with blurbs I can believe in and a favorable memory of the selection from it we read in Between Men a year ago. Plus The Pilgrim Hawk, Queen Lucia, and Wicked (all by writers we haven't read). Oh yes, and of course, Barry McCrea's The First Verse. Please give that your most serious consideration.


We didn't discuss Thom Gunn's "A Sketch of the Great Dejection," a pity since it's cardinal to the collection. And I wondered how others understood its beginning "Having read the promise of the hedgerow / the body set out anew on its adventures." What on earth is the promise of the hedgerow? At first I thought he might as well have been speaking of hedgehogs! The persona persists through his slough of despond having been promised love and imagination … from the hedgerow, or at least, at the hedgerow, as a starting point. I wonder if we're to recall those lines from Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"

                                                Once again I see
These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild:

"sportive" and "running wild" certainly seem appropriate for our adorer of "the risk that made robust."

Playing the Sing-Song Card

It's no trump. Sometimes verse that is too metrically regular is a blemish, sometimes it's just what you want. Witness nursery rhymes, Donald Hall's Goatfoot par excellence (cf Milktongue and Twinbird). Or, if that's too childish—Jack not wishing to be christened "along with other babies," as we'll read next month—consider the third part of Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," which begins

Earth receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

continuing similarly for eight more stanzas. In other words, metrical regularity is also desirable in a chant. (It's a droll peculiarity of contemporary poets that even when they deprecate meter they'll boringly chant their "plainsong" to the crack of doom!)

And now a little story illustrating the virtues of practical intelligence. Years ago I was a stage manager for a production of Yeats' "On Baile's Strand." The casting is nearly all male, warriors and chieftains like Cuchulain and Conchubar. But in the middle of the play some women are brought in to sing a rhyme that will drive out deceit and keep men's oaths. The spell is some forty lines and ends

Therefore in this ancient cup
May the sword-blades drink their fill
Of the home-brew there, until
They will have for masters none
But the threshold and hearthstone.

We were having the women read together sometimes, sometimes apart. On one run-through, one of the women read the last five lines. She … actually all of them were education majors, in English, and were quite insistent on their "knowing" that one shouldn't stop at the end of a line if the sense carried forward (what Touchstone might call the Enjambment Expeditious). I objected that this would break the spell. We were disputing over such matters when the director simply re-assigned the women's parts so that they all read the last five lines together. Voilà! Speaking together, like good horses in train, they read metrically and comfortably paused at each line's end.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Editors Meriwether & Wharton were too busy panting and depantsing in their preface/afterword to Men of Mystery to have said much about their editorial principles, but from their practice we may infer that they constituted their anthology of fictionalized "sexcrimes" from what was recent and at hand. That at any rate would explain how they managed to omit the finest specimen of this genre, Aaron Travis' "The Hit," which first appeared twenty-three years ago in Stroke and was later expanded to the novella Kip. The novella remains out of print (two copies as part of Big Shots selling through Amazon at $121.23 and up!). The original short story, however, is included in Susie Bright's The Best American Erotica 2003 since it was rated the number one erotic story of the last ten years by that anthology's readers.


is Hawaiian for honky, as in "There were five haoles at the book club last night and none of them knew it."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"It Must Have Been The Spirits"

The publication of this unfinished poem by Cavafy in the latest issue of The New Yorker heralds Daniel Mendelsohn's new "complete" translation (with Greek en face) to be published in two months by Knopf (624 pages). A couple of years ago Oxford World's Classics published a bilingual edition by Evangelos Sachperoglou of the published poems. Now with Mendelsohn's version of early, unpublished, and unfinished we must have reached an end (though I'm neither believing that nor complaining). BookMen may recognize the Knopf translator as the author of The Elusive Embrace which we read nine years ago (see below). Anyhow, all this bibliography aside, click on the link above and enjoy another one of CPC's "sensitive pleasure-bent youth[s]".

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Brideshead Re-Revisited

Referring to the movie, not the series (so I suppose I should have an extra "Re-" in the title). Disappointing, as advertised—or rather, as widely reviewed. More open about Sebastian's sexual interest in Charles, but damnably less so about Charles' in Sebastian. Indeed, Julia accompanies the two to Venice and it is Charles' interest in her there that dips Sebastian into despondent "dipsomania" — whereas, of course, in the novel Charles arguably turns to Julia much later only because Sebastian is no longer available. Still, in Morocco, Sebastian is striking in his PWA look, and there is one brilliant scene of little more than half a minute and half a dozen shots where we and Charles complicitly peer through mirrors on a canonic incestuous confessional, Sebasatian "childishly" crying in shame and humiliation as Lady Marchmain marmoreally withdraws her hand of love. "Name not the god, thou boy of tears" indeed!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mississippi Vi-SISSY-tudes

Happy New Year, Fellow Bookmen!

The five of us present last evening (including one new member; welcome!) took part in a lively discussion of Kevin Sessums' 2007 memoir, Mississippi Sissy. We all enjoyed the book and recommend it, though the first half--which recalls the trials and tribulations of the young Kevinator/Arlene as he comes to terms with his sexuality, the loss of family members, and his early awareness that the only way he can fit into his environment would be to sacrifice his essence--is overly drawn out and cluttered with details. (I did not feel this nearly as strongly as did my colleagues, I should note.) But we all found the second half, where Kevin comes into his own (so to speak) both as a character and memoirist, compelling and masterful, and wished it could have been even longer.

Questions of authenticity and truthfulness arose, as they always will in the consideration of memoirs, and here opinion was more divided. My own upbringing in Shreveport, Louisiana (a bit bigger than Jackson, Misssissippi, but all too similar), where I was born about five years after Sessums, was, mercifully, far less Southern Gothic than his, but observation after observation, and character and character, in the account rang true for me. However, others were less persuaded, and Sessum's use of reconstructed dialogue (which he acknowledges in his preface), in particular, seemed to be a sticking point. That is a valid criticism, but I still tend to subscribe to the "If that's not what they said, then it's what they SHOULD have" school in situations like that.

A final observation: I recall commenting to the group when we discussed Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors a few years ago that while the events he recounts may well have happened, I didn't believe it--and more crucially, I didn't believe Burroughs. I feel exactly the opposite about this memoir, and I warmly commend it to you all. Thanks to whoever recommended it. Cheers, Steve